Rowan Atkinson1 made the astute observation. “You think that because we speak English and you speak English that you’re bound to understand and like everything that we do.” The reality is that words can both engage and divide.

All forms of communication are dependent on the words used. An obvious statement I know. Yet, it is surprising how many times we get it wrong.

A classic example is the debacle of the Australian Tourism ad “Where the bloody hell are you?”. Australians found it funny, Americans banned it. Initially the UK also banned it, until the then Australian Minister for Tourism convinced the British to reverse their position, allowing it to be aired.

What is the lesson to be learnt here?

Simply put, the same word may have different meaning for different English-speaking countries. It goes further than that. The same word may have different meanings in different disciplines. My favourite example is the word noise. In marketing communications, noise is a good thing. Whereas if you are involved in process management, noise is a very bad thing.

You can drill down even further. Words may have different subtleties depending on the readers age, demographics, education, social status, and location.

The real lesson to be learnt is know who you are communicating with and speak with them using words they will understand. Ones that will resonate with them.

It is important to know your words.

Interesting fact, the Oxford English Dictionary states that there are about 600,000-words that are defined in the English language. Only outnumbered by the Korean dictionary.

Whilst it is not necessary to study lexicology, it is useful to be aware of trends in popularity of certain words and how they will relate to the audience you are communicating with.

A good example is the word bespoke. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it dates back to 1583. It simmered in the background for decades (even centuries) and then had an apparent rebirth over the last 10 years. Now nearly everything that can be ordered to a particular specification is bespoken. (That is true in Britain and Australia but in America it still better to stick with the term custom made.)

As a communicator, you need to ask yourself does this word suit your audience. Maybe they will think you are pompous, or another trend follower. You cannot monitor each and every word chosen but there are key words that will either turn people on or off. Having the skill to use the power of words effectively is a most valuable tool.

Be wary of synonyms

Today word processing software makes it easy to access synonym tools. It is important to note that most synonyms are not exactly the same. There are subtle differences even nuances that may change the message you are trying to convey. It is useful to note that most word processing synonym tools are American centric.

We come back to the same point depending on who it is your are aiming your message to and how you want them to perceive your information. She could be beautiful, foxy, pulchritudinous, cute, or elegant. The word you choose reflects more than just the actual meaning of the word.

Final thought

The next time you put ‘pen to paper’, before you decide what you are going to say, think about who you are going to be saying it to and how they would best appreciate your information.

There is enough miscommunication in the world, don’t add to it.

1English actor, comedian, and writer.

By Izabella Kobylanski, Principal, Planning Results

Request for permission to reproduce content should be directed to Planning Results

First appeared in Medium on 28 July 2022